(Last Updated on December 11, 2021)
This is Part 2 of my review of Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding (BFSU) – the K-8 science curriculum my family has been using for years in our homeschool. In Part 1, I covered the basics – the overall approach and layout of BFSU. In this post, I’ll get into the more detailed pros and cons and share some bonus information to help you on your BFSU journey.
What We Love About BFSU
Content & Organization
In my opinion, the biggest “pro” of this curriculum is the content and the way the lessons are organized to build on each other. Check out Part 1 for a description of the content, layout, and logical organization of the three BFSU volumes.
Author’s Ability to Simply Communicate Complex Topics to Kids & Adults
I wish I had this ability… maybe I would’ve been able to come up with a more concise title for this section.
Even without having met him, I can tell the author of this curriculum, Dr. Nebel, is someone who loves his subject matter. He also has a gift for breaking down complicated ideas in a way people of different ages can understand.
He writes the lessons so that even parents who don’t remember their elementary science classes can grasp it. And, by reading his lessons, you can tell he has experience teaching kids of all ages.
In his K-3 volume, you’ll see activities and explanations perfect for that age level. Here’s an excerpt from BFSU Volume I (Lesson A-5: Distinguishing Materials; pg 65):
“Have children get out (or pass out) wooden pencils. They will anticipate a project of some sort coming. But ask them to examine their pencils. Then ask, “What is it (at least the stem portion) made of?” Wood! “What other things in the room are made of wood?” Let children get up and explore…”Bernard J. Nebel, Ph.D. (BFSU Vol. I)
This activity and the others in Volume I are hands on and engaging. They start at a level most K-3 kids can grasp. He often includes examples of what the kids will answer, typical questions they’ll ask, or mistaken notions they tend to have at that age. I’ve found these comments to be really helpful and accurate – my kids often asked the questions he predicted they would.
By Volume III, the concepts are harder and there is more discussion. There are still activities and experiments, too, but it’s obviously geared toward older kids. Here’s an excerpt from BFSU Volume III (Lesson A-20: Concepts of Chemistry III, pg 41):
“As students absorb this idea, ask: “How many ways might atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen… join together by way of covalent bonding?” Let’s figure out the possibilities by modeling. Have students cut quarter-sized discs from card stock. Color and/or label the discs to represent H, O, C atoms and indicate the number of covalent bonds each forms…. Start with simple configurations. Suppose we have just hydrogen atoms… How might they join? (Think time.) Students will conclude that each hydrogen atom may share its electron…”Bernard J. Nebel, Ph.D. (BFSU Vol. III)
Whether you’re using Volume I and the student is five years old, or you’re in Volume III and your student is twelve, Dr. Nebel is able to explain the content step-by-step, in ways that kids understand, including age-appropriate activities. At the same time, he’s guiding the parent/teacher, too, so you’ll feel more confident even if science isn’t your thing.
The first time I looked at the flowchart I had two thoughts simultaneously. One thought was “Wow! So helpful!!” and the other was “Ahh! So overwhelming!!”
The BFSU flowchart is a visual outline of all the lessons in each book and how they flow together. The four threads – Nature of Matter (A), Life Science (B), Physical Science (C), and Earth & Space Science (D) – are laid out sequentially and alongside each other, with each lesson in a box on the chart.
The first thing to remember when looking at the BFSU flowchart is that this is potentially for three years of science. That means that you’d really only need to deal with 1/3 of the chart, if you’re using the book over the full three years. So, take a deep breath – it’s not as overwhelming as it seems at first.
If you’re like me, you might assume there is a “right” way to go through the lessons on the flowchart. And, if you’re like me, you might waste an unbelievable amount of your precious mom time trying to find that one “right” way and make spreadsheets organizing all the information.
Well, if you must, then go for it. But by the time we got to Volume III, I realized all that is not necessary. The whole point of the flowchart is to give you a framework that gives you the freedom to use the lessons in the way that works best for your situation. There is no one “right” way.
I’ll get more into how I plan out our BFSU school year later. But, overall, as long as you’re moving through each thread sequentially (that is, doing A-1 sometime before A-2) and checking the prerequisites if/when you jump around between threads, you’ll be fine.
This brings us to another aspect of BFSU that I love…
The flowchart is a visual illustration of the curriculum’s flexibility. Like I said, there’s a lot of freedom within the general progression laid out on the chart.
Some families choose to spend months on a certain thread. This year, for example, I chose to do all of our chemistry lessons in a row. We spent two weeks each on:
- A-19 Concepts of Chemistry II: Atoms: Unraveling Their Nature
- A-20 Concepts of Chemistry III: How Atoms Bond
- A-21 Concepts of Chemistry IV: Hydrogen Bonding and the… Behavior of Water
- A-22 Concepts of Chemistry V: Acids and Bases
For us, it made sense to stay in the “chemistry zone” for a while, since the concepts are more complex and new to my kids. I wanted to make sure we weren’t bouncing around too quickly so we took much of the first quarter and did a big chemistry unit.
But some lessons (like C-2: Sound, Vibrations, and Energy from Vol. I, for example) do well as stand-alone lessons and you could spend time on just that topic and then switch to a different thread. This makes it easy to align your lessons with the weather/seasons, field trip opportunities, or your kids’ current interests.
BFSU is also flexible because it can easily be used in a traditional classroom, a co-op, or a homeschool setting. As a homeschooling mom, I’ve always been able to do the activities with one, two, or three kids and generate good discussion even with just a few of us (see my bonus tip about this at the end of this post).
A teacher of a larger class could also feel very comfortable with this curriculum. Dr. Nebel frequently gives ideas for setting up learning centers, splitting up into groups for activities, and playing games that would work really well for large group settings.
Also, depending on your situation, you could choose to complete each volume in one, two, or three years. If you’re starting with a kindergartener, you could spread Volume I over their kindergarten, first, and second grade years and keep up that pace to finish up Volume III by the end of 8th grade. But if you have an older student, you could rearrange things – maybe doing one or more of the volumes in only one or two years to catch up or end sooner.
Here’s what we’ve ended up doing over the years for my two oldest kids:
- Year 1: K (with 2 yr old sibling listening in) – BFSU Vol. I
- Year 2: 1st (with 3 yr old sibling participating sometimes) – BFSU Vol. I
- Year 3: 2nd & PreK – BFSU Vol. I
- Year 4: 3rd & K – AIG God’s Design for Life
- Year 5: 4th & 1st – AIG God’s Design for the Physical World
- Year 6: 5th & 2nd – BFSU Vol. II (with Vol. I review as needed)
- Year 7: 6th & 3rd – BFSU Vol. II
- Year 8: 7th & 4th – BFSU Vol. III
- Year 9: 8th & 5th – BFSU Vol. III
When I started out, I planned on doing each book over three years. But, during years four and five, I panicked. I thought I wouldn’t be able to prepare and teach the BFSU lessons in Volume II and I felt like my teacher prep was taking too long. It was – but that’s only because I was making it a lot harder than I needed to. More about that in the next post.
Anyway, we switched to the AIG God’s Design series. But, although I like that program, too, I missed the content and flexibility and logical order of BFSU. I missed choosing how to switch between threads and topics. I missed feeling like we were discovering science concepts instead of just being told them. So, long story short, we returned to the BFSU books on our science shelves and haven’t looked back since!
After that, I still really wanted my two boys to get through the entire BFSU series so we went through Volume II in two years and are currently doing the same thing with Volume III (we’re in our eighth year of homeschooling now and I plan to finish Volume III with them next year when my oldest is in 8th grade). After that, I plan to start in Volume I again with my youngest child who will then be in 2nd grade.
Everyone’s circumstances are different, but the flexibility of BFSU makes it workable for all kinds of different settings, families, and situations.
Additional Reading Suggestions
I love that Dr. Nebel includes outside reading suggestions. He usually lists at least three or four and sometimes ten or more for each lesson. On average, I’d say about half of the books he’s suggested have been available at my local library. This has been more than enough for us since one or two for each chapter is plenty.
The books we’ve gotten based on Dr. Nebel’s recommendations have been age appropriate and interesting. Even when I couldn’t find the exact title he suggested, it helped just to know the types of books that would correlate so I could grab a few similar ones for my kids’ own reading or to read aloud as a family.
Objectives and Follow-up Activities Lists
I also love the lists provided at the beginning and end of each lesson.
The Objectives section lists the learning goals for the lesson. It helps to quickly scan this as I’m planning to make sure I understand the main points we’re addressing. I also reference it after the lesson to make sure my kids understood the main points. (Note: Knowing your objective is a key teaching strategy for any subject, not just science.)
At the end of each lesson, there are also lists of follow-up activities. These are great for getting ideas of what to include in science notebooks, projects to do throughout the lesson, and discussion questions to get your kids thinking. There’s always been plenty to do whether we want to spend one, two, or even four weeks on a lesson.
Dr. Nebel also notes connections to other topics. This helps you decide what BFSU lesson might make sense next. It also shows you what topics, teachable moments, and even career ideas would follow logically after the current lesson. I didn’t use this section much at first but I’ve been realizing lately how valuable this information is to share with your kids – especially your independent learners who might want to take a concept and run with it.
I’ve contacted Dr. Nebel on several occasions over the years and, every time, he’s given a prompt and thoughtful personal reply.
The first few years we used the program, I just contacted him directly. But over the last several years he’s been building up the BFSU Community forum and has requested that questions be posted there for the benefit of other BFSU families. Either way, he’s always responded within a few days and has always answered our questions.
And… wow! Have my boys loved getting an answer to their specific question from the author of their science book! I think the only thing they’d like better is getting a personal response from the creator of Minecraft!
Dr. Nebel’s answers, like his book, have been perfect for the age range he’s addressing. He often uses helpful analogies, like in his answer to our question about calories (a measure of heat energy) vs temperature. He responded with a great analogy about roasting a chicken that my kids completely understood and that I could relate to (having roasted many chickens in my time).
I’ve saved the best news for last. I still can’t believe the low price of these books. Each of the volumes is currently $29-$35 and each covers three years of science. By the end of the third volume, I’ll have gotten a complete elementary and Jr. High science education for my three kids (not to mention myself) for $100 TOTAL!
If you’ll allow me to get a little math-nerdy for a minute… That’s nine years of science education for three kids… 27 years of science… for $100… that’s less than $4 per kid per YEAR for an amazing, content-rich, thorough science education.
It just doesn’t get any better than that!
BFSU Bonus Tips
Some of you may be wondering about BFSU’s stance on evolution or religion. To be clear, this is not a Christian or religious curriculum. With that said, I’m a Christian and I haven’t had any issues using this program.
In my opinion, the science covered in these three volumes is about 95% plain ol’ neutral, uncontroversial science. Things like “all matter has a particulate nature” or “vertical means straight up and down” or “pH 1 is very acidic.”
Here and there, the author makes respectful and helpful comments to point out areas you might want to address with your kids. For example, here’s an excerpt from BFSU Vol. I, Lesson B-4: Life Cycles:
“For humans and other mammals, the life cycle is relatively simple; adults have babies, babies grow up and mature, females mate with males, and babies are born, starting the next generation. (You may insert a morals/ethics lesson here concerning the special status of humans, as you see fit. Humans should not just mate and have babies as wild animals do. Our life cycle includes many rules and responsibilities surrounding men and women coming together and bearing and raising children.)”Bernard J. Nebel, Ph.D. (BFSU Vol. I)
Overall, it’s been no problem for me to elaborate, reference Bible verses, or add in little moral tidbits as things come up. It’s especially rewarding to me when the kids themselves make these kinds of comments and connections.
As for the topic of origins, this book takes the mainstream stance when it comes to the age of the earth and theory of evolution. Lesson D-8: Rocks & Fossils (in Vol. I) and lessons B-33/D-20: Darwin’s Observations and Reasoning and D-19: Eons of Earth History (in Vol. III) deal with the topic directly.
I personally don’t feel the evolutionary model is the best explanation for who we are and how we got here. My family will be covering the topic in a lot of detail with a variety of resources with our kids in the future. For now, it’s been no problem at all for us to skip those few lessons and focus on the tremendous amount of other content in BFSU.
Modifying for Small/Large Groups
It’s great that this is written for homeschool, co-op, and classroom use. But sometimes that means a homeschool with only one or two kids might need to tweak an activity to work with just two or three individuals instead of a classroom of kids. Honestly, this hasn’t been much of an issue for our family. The few times it has come up, I’ve easily been able to modify the activities for our situation.
For example, in lesson C-16: Light II (Vol. III), one activity calls for someone to shine a flashlight onto a mirror and then have another person “catch” the reflection on a piece of cardstock. Another person would then measure the distances between the mirror and cardstock as well as between the mirror and flashlight. So, ideally you’d want three people for this activity. In our case, mom and little sister jumped in to help. But you could easily set the flashlight on a shelf, prop up the mirror and/or cardstock with objects, and still complete the experiment.
As you’re preparing for each lesson, just keep an eye out for modifications you might need to make for particularly small or large groups.
Teaching Multiple Ages
Whether or not you can teach multiple kiddos with this curriculum at the same time will depend on your situation, the ages and abilities of your kids, and their (and your) personalities.
My kids are currently 12, 9, and 5. My two oldest are three grades apart but I’ve always done this curriculum with them both together. In my opinion, elementary level science and history are two subjects that can easily be taught across ages, with each child working on the same topic at their own level. It’s been so beneficial for us to all be learning the same content as a family!
In our case, I use the grade level that my oldest is in and the middle son just picks things up as he’s able. I have my oldest include more in his notebook but, overall, they’re both able to learn the content at their own level (and we can always go back and review prerequisite lessons if needed to get everyone on the same page).
It really depends on your kids, but I’d guess that most siblings within a few years of age and/or ability level of each other could go through BFSU together. My daughter, however, is 4 years younger than my middle son and just starting kindergarten this year. So far, she “tags along” for science, overhearing our lessons and playing with the experiments when she’s interested and able. Other days she plays on starfall.com or has her own separate playtime.
If your kids’ abilities are age-typical, I’d say you could use BFSU with multiple kids up to 3 years apart. With differences more than 3 years, the younger ones might not be understanding enough to really get the foundation they need for future learning. You might consider aligning the book to the age of the youngest, and then adding extra projects or work for your older ones. Ultimately, it depends on a lot of factors and your own family situation.
We already talked about flexibility as a “pro” of this curriculum. But the flip side of the flexibility coin is that you’ll need to decide what lessons and threads to do when. This much freedom can sometimes be overwhelming, but I found it got easier once we had a few lessons under our belts. If you’re a type-A planner like me, my advice is to follow the flowchart and do your best to lay out the lessons in an order that makes sense with your schedule and the weather/opportunities in your location.
For more about our experience with BFSU, check out the next post where I get into more detail about the process I use to plan out our BFSU year.
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